What You'll Learn
- Defining Sleep Training
- Teaching Self-Soothing And Sleep Skills
- Benefits of Sleep Training
Can you remember the last time you slept for five hours in a row? If an infant lives with you, there’s a good chance you can’t. Sleep is essential for us to function and makes us better parents, but sometimes when we talk about sleep training our kiddos, moms can be consumed with guilt. Are we putting our own needs above the babies? And does sleep training automatically mean allowing babies to cry it out? Dr. Aubrie is a psychologist who specializes in sleep, and she’s going to help us unpack what sleep training is and isn’t.
Defining Sleep Training
In the online space, sleep training gets confined to “cry it out,” which is leaving the baby in their crib to cry themselves to sleep. But that’s not what sleep training is about. “Sleep training really is just simply giving babies and children the tools and the opportunity to learn their own techniques to fall asleep and get back to sleep,” Dr. Aubrie said.
Sleep training is really about training parents. When babies are given the time and space to fall asleep on their own, they will. As a parent, it’s sometimes hard to step away.
When babies are given the time and space to fall asleep on their own, they will.
Sleep training can turn into a war of needs. On one hand, there is a mom who may still be recovering from birth but definitely needs sleep, and on the other is a tiny human who needs sleep to grow. The narrative can become, “If you’re putting your baby in a crib and letting them cry it out, you’re selfish”. Or “You nurse that baby to sleep every night. You’re not taking care of yourself.”
But each family, each mom, and each baby is unique. Some moms may sleep fine while nursing a baby to sleep. Others may be so exhausted that it’s better for the baby if mom gets some quality sleep than being held all night. You have to do what works for your family.
“Parents' mental health is very much tied to lack of sleep or getting enough sleep. We’re better parents when we’re well-rested,” Dr. Aubrie explained.
Teaching Self-Soothing And Sleep Skills
Sleep training doesn’t usually start until 4 months, but you can start teaching some small skills before you begin formal sleep training. Dr. Aubrie agreed we probably don’t want to let a newborn cry it out, but we can still offer the baby a chance to resettle before we swoop in to rescue.
Dr. Aubrie recommended waiting at least one minute. One minute isn’t long enough for your child to feel abandoned because no one came when they cried, but it does give the baby a chance to fall back asleep on their own. “A lot of times little ones are still asleep. It’s actually a light sleep they’re in. They’re grunting, fussing, and moving, and we’re the ones waking them up,” she said.
Not allowing the baby a chance to relax and resettle can make things worse.
Not allowing the baby a chance to relax and resettle can make things worse. Dr. Aubrie gave the example of a baby crying because they’re overtired. But we often mistake those night cries for hunger and rush in with a feeding. Overeating can lead to discomfort which makes it harder for the baby to sleep.
“Crying is not harmful,” Dr. Aubrie said. “Sometimes they don’t need anything. They just need sleep.” If what you’re doing is working, you don’t need sleep training. But if the baby isn’t sleeping, then it might be time to try another approach.
Babies cry when we change their diapers or put them in their car seats, but we don’t drive down the street holding the baby or let them stay in a soiled diaper. They need sleep too. Crying at night doesn’t mean we need to pick them up or feed them.
I’ve worked with many clients who stare at the ceiling struggling to get to sleep on their own. In fact, sleep hygiene and establishing healthy sleep routines is a common conversation for the adults I work with in therapy. Our sleep is impacted by several factors that even as adults we may need assistance with at times. “Being able to learn helpful skills to get the best sleep you can even for small children can be really helpful,” Dr. Aubrie said.
“Attachment is really about babies feeling that they have a parent or caregiver that is responsive to their needs and meeting their needs,” Dr. Aubrie said. “If their need is sleep and we are not providing them sleep, we are not meeting that need.”
If an overtired baby cries and we respond by turning lights on, cooing at them, and rocking them, we could actually be preventing sleep. Sleep training won’t harm and can actually support a secure attachment.
No one action is going to break our bond with our child.
No one action is going to break our bond with our child. People sometimes cite research that says sleep training or letting a baby cry at night can harm your attachment. They forget to mention this research often focuses on babies in an orphanage where no one is responding to their needs ever.
“Props are for soothing, not for sleeping,” Dr. Aubrie said. She defines a sleep prop as anything outside of yourself you use to go to sleep. If a baby has to feed to sleep each time they wake up or has to have a pacifier every time they wake during the night, that’s a sleep prop. We’re doing the work for them to help them sleep.
But sleep props aren’t a problem, unless it’s preventing the baby or parents from getting the sleep they need. We have to recognize each family has its own values when it comes to sleep, and that’s okay unless it’s not working for your family. When it’s not working for your family is when you should consider taking steps to make sure everyone is getting the rest they need.
While formal sleep training doesn’t usually begin until around 4 months, Dr. Aubrie likes to say, “Babies get used to what they’re introduced to.” So, maybe practice letting the baby sleep in their bassinet for 1 nap or kick around in their crib for 1 minute before nap time.
Overstimulated babies can become overtired and be more likely to wake during the night too. Newborns are usually only awake 45 to 60 minutes before it’s time for another nap. “Pay attention to wake windows,” Dr. Aubrie suggested. If a newborn is staying awake for several hours before napping again, it could be that they are exhausted and overstimulated which might cause them to sleep for shorter stretches at a time.
Routines can be really helpful too. Having some sort of short bedtime routine helps signal to your baby—and your own brain—that it’s bedtime. “A lot of people don’t have to sleep train,” Dr. Aubrie said. If you start practising these skills from the beginning, you might not need to sleep train.
Our routines change throughout our lifetimes.
Even adults have their own routine at bedtimes, like brushing your teeth and washing your face. Our routines change throughout our lifetimes. We may read to a toddler or preschooler, and as a kid becomes school age they might start independent reading as part of their bedtime routine. We’re really just helping our babies learn this skill. Dr. Aubrie pointed out that it’s easy to drop our own bedtime habits when we have a newborn, and that can affect our sleep too. Keep as much of your own sleep habits as you can!
Life with an infant can be tumultuous with so many new struggles hoisted on us at once. If you find yourself struggling to adjust to motherhood, you’re starting the day overly exhausted, or just don’t feel like yourself anymore, reach out to Momwell Therapy Support. Help is available!